Besotted with Brisket

Brisket Platter

Some foods will improve your meal, your mood, your day, your buttered noodles. Brisket will improve your life.

I didn’t even know what brisket was until I was about 25 years old. My mother never made it. (Can you say, “Vivian, Swedish Lutheran lover of lutefisk?”) But years later, when I put the first piece of voluptuous beef into my mouth, fork-tender, adrift in a rich, sweet onion gravy…well, you had me at brisket. (Full disclosure: My father, Mannie, was Jewish, so clearly I have a strong brisket gene.)

Not long after, when one of my closest friends revealed the secret ingredient in her family’s brisket recipe, I started to cry. That’s the moment I realized I needed to get to the bottom of why so many of us have such a strong emotional attachment to this sort of blah cut of beef. A buttery rich madeleine you could understand. So French, so delicate, so, well, so Proustian. “Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?”

But why does a flaccid, four-pound, gray-brown piece of beef shaped roughly like the state of Tennessee inspire Proustian prose, evoke the deepest pleasure, and create indelible memories?

Is it because it’s so simple and forgiving that even the worst cook can make a good one? A basic brisket requires little more than a few juicy ingredients to keep it from drying out. That and the patience to wait for it to cook s…l…o…w…l…y.

Is there something to the fact that brisket is just so unpretentious? In a world of Rachel Zoe makeovers, brisket is completely comfortable with what it isn’t. Brisket isn’t some snobby dish you can’t pronounce or afford. It’s not posh–rarely has a truffle ever gone into the making of one. Molecular gastronomists haven’t been able to alter brisket’s perfect DNA or turn it into a foam. It has no airs. It’s as content bathed in ketchup as it is nestled in a day-after taco.

Or could it be that for years, brisket was so affordable you could serve your whole family, invite the neighbors, set an extra place for the rabbi and his wife, and still have leftovers for a week?

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While all these things are true and contribute to brisket’s lasting resonance, I believe the real reason for its powerful allure is even simpler. Brisket will be what you want it to be. And that, with all due respect, is more than you can honestly say about your teenager, your hair, your Labradoodle, or most members of Congress.

On a cooking level, it’s a perfect culinary blank canvas, adept at adapting to everything you rub on or throw in, from garlic salt to Liquid smoke to miso to gingersnaps to huge gulps of Coca Cola.

On an emotional level, you can celebrate with brisket, mourn with it, diet with it, defrost with it, court with it, make a friend with it. If brisket didn’t have the power to seduce, there wouldn’t be what’s called The Brisket Brigade in certain Jewish circles. (These circles, by the way, don’t even admit there is such a thing.) Here’s how The Brisket Brigade works. When a man is widowed, thoughtful neighbors and friends (read: unmarried women) console and comfort him the best way they know how: by dropping off a pot of still-warm, homemade brisket. With a heady cloud of steam drifting into the air–all deep fragrance and heavenly flavor, well…it’s enough to make a man think how nice it is to have a woman around the house. A loving, caring woman with a fine, deep pot and a brisket recipe.

That’s the beautifully complex nature of this very simple cut. When you get right down to it, brisket has to do with life. Remembering it, sharing it, celebrating it.

Let me just say what you can already feel. I love brisket. I say, a brisket in every pot, in every Crock-Pot, on every Weber, in every barbecue joint, on every Passover platter, in every deli, at every butcher, in every food truck, on every TV food show, food site, food blog. To quote the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mark Strand, “I raise my fork and I eat it.”

[Editor’s Note: There are two things we can’t seem to get enough of this time of year–brisket and Stephanie Pierson’s wit and way of seeing the world. The below video indulges our desire for a little more of each….]



  1. I wonder if my mother’s recipe for brisket is in the old 1960’s synagogue cookbook I took from her years ago? It may have been one of the meals she made that I actually liked. Here in France, a similar cheap cut of meat is also used for gorgeous slow-cooked stews like Beouf à la Mode and it does come out so beautifully, meltingly tender. I have always wanted to try using this cut to make a North African prune and almond tagine. Must be stunning!

  2. The secret ingredient is usually either Coke or ginger ale. Another can be Lipton’s dry onion soup mix. I don’t use these things (and I have deep, deep brisket roots, going back to Minsk, c. 1905). Here’s my perfect-every-time brisket:

    A first cut brisket has less fat than a second cut, so it will shrink less and is of course more expensive. I buy about 3/4 lb/person. That way, I get leftovers, unless I have a lot of men and teenage boys over.

    A mixture of ketchup, hoisin sauce, chili sauce (but not for Passover, alas; then I just use tomato sauce). Whatever you use should have a lot of umami, and I guess you could add mushrooms, but that would start to veer sharply into pot roast…(I avoid the powdered onion soup mix because it has MSG in it.)
    About three large onions, sliced rather thickly; there should be enough to completely cover the brisket.
    A bottle of dry-ish red wine, usually the same kosher malbec-syrah blend I’m serving with the dinner.

    Cover the brisket with the tomato stuff, whichever you’re using, then the onions. Make sure the onions completely cover the brisket. Pour in the wine. Cover the brisket TIGHTLY and cook at 300F for many, many hours, until all the collagen is completely melted. I don’t even check the meat for the first four hours. There should be absolutely NO resistance to the fork when it’s done. Then cook and chill overnight.

    The next day, skim the fat (which will be trapped in the onions and largely unskimmable, but try anyway because there’s a lot of it), remove the now vastly smaller brisket, remove the onions but save them and slice across the grain (which I never am sure I know what that means, but anyway) with a long sharp knife. Maintain the brisket shape as best you can, and when it’s all thinly sliced, put it back into the pan with the wine and juices, recover with the onions and cover tightly to reheat in the gravy it made. Serve and take a bow.

    This looks like a lot of work but it is not and the results are awesome. Even my husband, not a MOT, and not a brisket-lover, loves this.

    1. Ellen, thank you! You’re right, Coke and ginger ale impart a really swell sweetness to briskets. We admit to pushing the Coke approach with this tried-and-true Southern recipe, although yours sounds just as intriguing. We so appreciate you sharing…

  3. I make brisket 2x a year – Passover and Chanukah. This time I used up some leftover Coke Zero in it and it was so delicious. I also used half the amount of onion soup mix as we are trying to cut down on sodium around here. I doubled the liquid and used half water. I have leftovers for BBQ Brisket Sandwiches this weekend.

    1. Whoa, RisaG! BBQ Brisket Sandwiches sound like a terrific weekend lunch. Will you take them on a picnic?

  4. Well, with all the many “secret” ingredients out there for cooking up a great brisket, what could have brought Stephanie Pierson to tears? I must guess that LOVE is the most important ingredient a brisket could ever have. Does that sound corny? Maybe, but brisket is such a resilient cut of beef – how can you wrong with it? But, taken the long cooking process with a low cooking temperature you really have to keep a watchful eye on it – it’s always on your mind. And, just when you stop thinking about it, its aroma reminds you of what you’ve got going on making you take a peek to be sure everything is OK with it. You really get to know a brisket by the time its ready to serve up. I sure fondly remember a few good individual briskets myself!

      1. Oh, my goodness! I’m so totally bookmarked to this one now – I really have to know that secret ingredient!!!

  5. Love the mystery surrounding the “secret ingredient.” Being a product of the ’50s, I can tell you that back in those days, virtually every Jewish Mother used Lipton’s French Onion Soup Mix in the envelope as their “secret ingredient” to make their brisket special…

    1. Karen, apparently it’s still a not-so-secret secret. We posted a recipe for Coca Cola Brisket, which called for an envelope. And I have to say, it was quite tasty.

    2. Karen, I hate to admit that I still plop some French Onion Soup mix in my hamburger patties. It does add a great flavor to otherwise bland burgers.


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